“The objectification that you are exposed to as a young girl is somewhat similar to the objectification of a work of art.” We’ve met with Stockholm sculptor Cajsa von Zeipel to talk about human anatomy, the spectator, and her studio.
Tall, sleek, and distant, Cajsa von Zeipel’s sculptures of young women and men are both fascinating and frightening. At first glance they seem vulnerable and weak, with their beautifully shaped bodies, kinky dresses, and wide, woeful eyes. But the closer you get, the stronger you feel their integrity and intimidation. They are not yours to looks at, to sexualize and domesticate, control or condemn. Renouncing your sympathies and your voyeuristic gaze, they reverse the relation between the spectator and the object.
When we enter Cajsa von Zeipel’s temporary studio at The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm, also known as Mejan, we are standing face to face with a stately woman dressed in a mini skirt, her hair braided. The sixteen feet tall sculpture is towering above us in the studio, her thin legs tucked into Buffalo shoes and her face turned to the side. Nearly finished, Cajsa is giving her some final touches together with two friends. The sculpture is called Hello, Goodbye and is now standing next to a highway outside of Linköping in the South of Sweden. Cajsa explains it as a payback to herself as a teenager, bored to death in the small province where she grew up.
– She’s walking away from the city, but turns around and looks back, Cajsa says. In some way this sculpture expresses what it’s like growing up in the country. I remember being younger and getting these hints that life wouldn’t always be like that. I want this sculpture to act like one of those hints to the kids passing it on their way to school.
Growing up in Ljungskile, a small village outside of Gothenburg, her mother working as a curator, Cajsa attended art exhibitions from an early age. During upper secondary school she went to an art school, and after her graduation she moved on to study three preparatory years in Gothenburg before entering The Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm.
– For a long time I was better at looking at art, than making art, because of my upbringing. I could understand things, but I wasn’t very interested in expressions and techniques. I always skipped the life-drawing classes. That’s kind of ironic now, when the techniques are such a vital part of my work.
Sculpted in styrofoam and plaster, Cajsa’s sculptures are reminiscent of the classical tradition of antique sculptures, with their smooth white surfaces and lifelike features.
– In the beginning I knew nothing about the techniques I master today, and I did some stupendous failures. It is just out of pure interest that I learned how to do this rather quickly. I wanted to be better at it. I’ve been so productive these last years, that I’ve hardly had time for anything else.
Cajsa’s love for sculptures was born out of an infatuation with human anatomy. The whole thing started as a project in 2008, where Cajsa wanted to draw parallels between the myth of Narcissus and the subculture Pro-ana, where anorexia is perceived as a lifestyle rather than an eating disorder.
– I was fascinated by the fact that you can look at your own reflection in the mirror so passionately that you ignore the fact that you are slowly disappearing, Cajsa explains. I wanted to approach this project as a kind of tourist, and set about to control my eating habits to the extreme during three weeks. After that I was caught.
In the middle of her project, Cajsa moved to Frankfurt to study a semester at Städelschule, bringing nothing but her clothes and a wish to start all over again. Something that she both would and would not do. She spent most of her time in Frankfurt sitting in her room, taking pictures of herself with her laptop, still obsessed with the way her body looked.
– Initially the idea of the project was to document the transformations my body went through, but I didn’t have any restraints. Instead it evolved into a conception of myself. I didn’t starve myself, but I did try to eat as little as possible. I was open with what I was doing and talked about it in an unbiased way. In the end I guess it was more of an introvert process that resulted in obsessing so much over my own anatomy that I finally memorized it.
When Cajsa came back to Stockholm she felt frustrated and misunderstood. The only person she wanted to spend time with was her friend Anna, who had just begun working with styrofoam. And then everything suddenly fell into place.
– I had been so interested in my anatomy for so long, that when I began working with sculptures I instantly knew what to do. The material and the scale came from the ideas I had about the body back then.
– What I did in Frankfurt was basically to sit in my Buffalo shoes, chain-smoking, staring into the empty nothingness, wondering what would become of me. And that became my first character.
What I did was basically to sit in my Buffalo shoes, chain-smoking, staring into the empty nothingness. And that became my first character.
Suddenly Cajsa found herself immersed in the techniques that she had loathed as a young student, developing her now notorious sculptural style. Those who attended her graduation show at The Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm were faced by a huge stripper, slowly spinning around her pole, accompanied by the Academy’s cast of antique sculptures such as Nike of Samotrace and the Laocoön Group. She became by far the most talked-about artist of the show.
Since then, Cajsa has continued to create sculptures of young women, and recently also of men, in exposed and seemingly sexualised postures. She’s made sculptures of women smoking, vomiting, and crying; sculptures of women involved in subversive, homoerotic games, and sculptures of men masturbating
– I can almost take offence if people confuse my works, Cajsa says. At the same time I have a tendency to work with the same kind of characters over and over again. Now I’m starting to believe that they might be one and the same. All of them meet the spectators with indifference. I’m interested in the psychology behind facial expressions, like fake smiles. In the bust called Crocodile Tears, the woman has a very harsh expression on her face, even though she’s crying. To me, it’s important to make the spectators feel excluded.
Even if her characters at first seem vulnerable in their exposed postures and kinky dresses, Cajsa wants them to be in control over the situation, to belittle the spectator with their startling scale, and meet viewer’s voyeuristic gaze with indifference.
– The objectification that you are exposed to as a young girl is somewhat similar to the objectification of a work of art. The art is just there for you to observe. I’ve always had trouble understanding some works of art, such as paintings and sculptures. I used to work a lot with installations, where you enclose the spectator with the art, and I wanted to translate that power to my sculptures. By making them in this huge scale I could reverse the relation between the spectator and the object, and make the spectator feel exposed and intimidated. I want my sculptures to be in control. These are no girls to feel sorry for.
What about your group sculptures? How do your characters interact?
– It’s about the contradiction between identifying and competing with your equal. Imagine a conversation between two people who both need each other in order to talk about themselves. There is a need for affirmation between them, but also a kind of power structure, and a kind of interdependence.
The objectification that you are exposed to as a young girl is somewhat similar to the objectification of a work of art.
What does your working process look like?
– If I know where the sculpture will be placed I start from there. I think about the size of the space, who the viewers will be, and how they will move around it. I also make a kind of psychological portrait of the character I want to depict. If I’m making a sculpture of this size I begin with a small-scale model. Then I cut out blocks of styrofoam and set about building, sawing, whittling, and filing, until I have the shapes I want. When all the body parts are done I map them together. It’s like a three dimensional jigsaw.
Where do you take your visual elements from?
– When I first began making sculptures, my friends and I were a very unified front, with certain dress codes and a strong affiliation. The high shoes were vital, for instance. I never took them off. When I needed a pair of shoes for my sculpture I just looked at and modelled the shoes I was wearing at the moment. So my sculptures bear a lot of resemblance to my friends and me, but they are no portraits.
When Cajsa is not working at Mejan, she shares a studio with the artist Tobias Bernstrup. With his slender body and refined anatomy, he has lent many of his bodily features to Cajsa’s sculptures.
– Tobias has meant a lot to me. I met him at the same time as I began making sculptures, so he’s been vital to my artistic development. He also continues to serve as my model. He’s got a way better anatomy that I have, with more refined muscles, something that is an advantage when making sculptures. I’ve used his anatomy for many of my girls, which has given them an androgynous appearance, with small breasts and narrow hips.
The studio is really important
to me, or, no, it’s not just important,
Working solely with female characters for years, it wasn’t until last year that Cajsa exhibited her first two male sculptures in a solo show at Andréhn-Schiptjenko in Stockholm, one who sat on a chair smoking, and one who masturbated against a wall, his face tormented.
– I felt to a great extent that I had turned into a girl who made girls, so I wanted to depict men just to see how they would turn out. Who would they become? What would they look like? I also thought that the male characters would somehow define the female ones, which I believe that they did. In the exhibition I placed them somewhat isolated from the rest, and I made them shorter and more unattractive. The guy who’s smoking was maybe a bit handsome, but the guy who masturbates was definitely not the prettiest one. He was actually the first ugly sculpture I’d ever made. I was terrified to have him exhibited, not because of what he did, but because he was so ugly.
What does the studio mean to you?
– The studio is really important to me, or, no, it’s not just important, it’s essential. When I graduated from school my first priority was to get a studio. Usually I have my studio at Nya Kontoret at Birger Jarlsgatan, but I can’t work in this huge scale there. And I like to work here sometimes. It was here that I made my first sculpture, as well as the stripper that I exhibited at my graduation show. The periods I’ve been working here have been really intense, but also liberating.
– I like the fact that I’m being observed here. It makes me feel a bit pressured, which gives me a pace. It’s become so damn nice in my other studio, with too many dinners and too much wine. The studio is housed in an old apartment with wooden floors, which sets a certain mood. I know that I can slosh about as much as I want there, but I don’t feel as liberated there as I do here. So the mood of the studio is definitely affecting my work and my tempo.
How do you build a relationship with a studio?
– It’s something that just happens. I make myself at home rather quickly. My biggest interest as a child was to rearrange my furniture. I did it all the time. I think that’s where my interest in installations began. I try to rearrange my studio as well, so I don’t get too used to it. As soon as you get too used to something you get blunt.
Do you arrange your own exhibitions as well?
– Yes, that’s important to me. Now I have a whole ensemble of characters that I can work with and put together in different ways. It’s a way of directing, where I can create various scenes and scenarios. It’s a never ending story.
Cajsa von Zeipel is currently in New York on an artist’s travel grant.
Photography by Fredrik Andersson Andersson.